My daughter’s first solid food, at three months of age, was ossobuco, the Italian dish of meat, wine and vegetables. If we had been Italian, or even visiting Italy, this would have made sense.
In fact, if she had been gumming her mashed up ossobuco in a restaurant in Italy the other diners would have ignored her, or clapped.
Since then, she has gone through phases of liking or not liking particular foods, but this past weekend she texted me a photograph of herself eating jellyfish, and I thanked the ossobuco and the wide array of dishes that she’s been offered over nineteen years for her adventurous gastronomic spirit.
But apparently, loading her baby spoon with food from other cultures is not all that was going on at our table. In a series of experiments with over 200 one-year-olds, Development Psychologists Zoe Liberman and Kathern Kinzler of Cornell University watched babies as the babies watched films of adults eating. This research protocol is a walk in the park because babies are fascinated with other people and when they gaze at someone for a long time, it’s meaningful. In general, the babies paid little attention if one person liked a food and the next person did as well but they stared longer, presumably confused, when the subsequent diner was disgusted by the test food.
We know that what we eat is highly cultural. Just discuss cupcakes and orange soda with the Maasai and watch them make the yuk face while we, in Western culture, would be hard pressed to drink a cocktail of milk and blood. Every culture’s diet is based on a particular kind of subsistence pattern linked to such mundane things as climate, topography, and available raw materials. The recent study shows that babies are not just being indoctrinated into their own cultures by the foods they are offered. They are also innately clocking people who look or talk the same or different, noting enemies and friends, figuring out who to trust and who not to trust. In other words, eating with others is one way babies go about filling in their social map. And eating alone is lonely.
As such, food is not just a cultural moment or a window to the past, it is not just identity or nutrition. Food and what we like or dislike is also one of the threads of connection that signal someone is one of us or not, a point of social communication that even infants recognize.
If I had known all this nineteen years ago, I might have paid more attention to the the context of my daughter’s first real meal. I would have seen her taking note of the reactions by the people at the table, good friends and devoted foodies who loved ossobuo. Her growing baby brain, already geared to such calculations, would have surely digested the fact that these people were part our tribe and that she was culturally home.